Basically, fundamentalism depends on modern capitalism; not just because it needs the internet to organize, but for its very existence. Without developing its economy, Egypt would not have generated the wealth that produced the inequality that drove discontent. Becoming poorer is insupportable when others are becoming richer. Without a world crisis, the tens of thousands of Egyptians who were working on construction sites in oil rich Arab countries wouldn’t have been sent home to boost unemployment.
Many of us are happy about recent events in Egypt, for all sorts of reasons (not least that Egyptians are likely to be much happier if they can avoid falling under the domination of militant Islam). There’s a kind of guilt attached to having positive feelings about a military coup that ousts a democratically elected president, but it’s clear that sometime in the last decade, the argument that if you could only give a people free elections, they’d smoothly progress to Western style prosperity passed its high water mark and has been on the decline ever since.
There was the success of the Chinese in growing their economy (the one true test of worth for capitalists) without paying even lip service to human rights – and who can argue that ordinary Chinese would be happier if they had more freedom and less to eat? There was the inability of the governments in the liberal democracies of the developed world to rise to the challenge of economic crisis for the benefit of citizens, or even to show a degree of basic integrity in their dealings.
More than that there was the example of military adventures and non-military interventions by the West that succeeded in replacing one dictator after another with an electoral ballot, only for the ungrateful population to reject the western model in favour of a reactionary, regressive ideology that then bars out any further serious democratic process. The pattern was so established even before the “Arab Spring” that only experts who’d persuaded themselves that situations were more complex than they appeared to be could have been surprised by the outcome.
How it goes: a country with a repressive regime makes sufficient economic progress for an educated middle class to emerge. With aspirations raised beyond subsistence, this urban class reacts against the lack of freedoms and gains Western support for its struggle. The urban class takes to the street and finds it has strength beyond its numbers – most of the population is still working in the fields and believing everything the iman tells them, but come the revolution all will have the vote; at least once. The urban class makes its revolution and starts falling out over what to do next, which has happened in every democracy since Athens. While they bicker the countryside votes for the Islamist and then it’s game over. The Islamists can rely on the energy and ruthlessness of young men whose idealism is fuelled by high unemployment and sexual insecurity in a world which seems to be on the verge of admitting women as full human beings.
What’s encouraging about Egypt, apart from our needing to admire the determination of a people that has been prepared to take to the streets twice in numbers (imagine that happening in Spain, for example) is the political awareness of the masses who eventually gave the army a popular mandate to intervene on the basis that the country was ungovernable. They saw the way their government was headed and reacted against it.
What is interesting about Egypt is partly the role of the army. The country that so far has most successfully incorporated a non-totalitarian version of Islam into a pluralist society is Turkey, where the role of the army as guarantors of a secular constitution is written into laws of the state. Arguably, the military has been a positive force in much of Pakistan’s recent, troubled past. This phenomenon isn’t restricted to the world of Islam. In Venezuela, for example, whatever is said about Hugo Chavez, it was only this general who ensured that his people got a share of oil riches instead of the privileged few who had become accustomed to sell their country’s wealth to the USA cheaply in return for personal wealth. The USA response was to try to kill him.
In the West we think we have learned to distrust soldiers, except when we need them, even though we have many historical examples of armed forces acting for the general good against politicians, from the time of ancient Rome onwards. Religion and the army are the two forces that stand apart from capitalism, so when capitalism is discredited (as in Egypt, where the country has made great progress with its economy but the fruits have not been shared, with 20% of the population in poverty and the poor getting poorer) it’s either the church or the army that is likely to step in.
The other most interesting thing about Egypt is that it points up the economic bases of so much of the politics. Basically, fundamentalism depends on modern capitalism; not just because it needs the internet to organize, but for its very existence. Without developing its economy, Egypt would not have generated the wealth that produced the inequality that drove discontent. Becoming poorer is insupportable when others are becoming richer. Without a world crisis, the tens of thousands of Egyptians who were working on construction sites in oil rich Arab countries wouldn’t have been sent home to boost unemployment.
But crucially, Egypt hasn’t gone the same way as the oil rich countries – so far at least. Like traditional capitalist countries, it’s economy was based on making and selling things. So without oil revenues that guarantee a huge income to hereditary dictators or whoever can claw their way to the top, it seems that states are not capable of supporting the sort of lunatic policies that the islamists and their incarnations in other countries are intent on following, at least not without making the people so badly off that they rebel. Again, the fundamentalists depend on the capitalist demand for fuel (or drugs) to finance their excesses.
I hope that is so. One thing that clearly is true is that with upward of one billion Muslims in the world, living in most of the world’s countries, there is no point looking for a resolution in some kind of War on Terror, however that has been re-badged, any more than there’s a resolution that sees everyone in the world converted to Islam: so we’ll have to learn to get along somehow.